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Posts Tagged ‘masculinity’

Disney Movie Poster

Disney Movie Poster

Disney has been dishing out tales about young heroes for generations, from the likely to the unlikely, from the princely to the fuzzy, so it’s no surprise that their latest animated film, Big Hero 6, returns in full swing to such heroics with a young hero’s journey to maturation. Living in a futuristic world in a fused Japanese-American society, Hiro Hamada stands out as a young man of exponential potential, a bona fide genius. Even his name suggests his chance for greatest, a Japanese name used as a pun in the film for the English word “hero.” After graduating high school at the age of thirteen, however, our soon-to-be hero, Hiro, seems more like a teenager with too much time on his hands, spending his days inventing robots to beat the pants off his opponents in robot wars, and raking in cash by winning bets placed on these robot games. Fortunately, his older brother, Tadashi, is there to guide him down the right path. But when Tadashi is killed as a result of someone’s devious plans to steal an invention of Hiro’s, Hiro decides to catch the person responsible. Joined by his friends and Baymax, the robot his brother had created, they turn themselves into a team of superheroes up to the job of bringing down a super villain. Yet for all its classic stamps of a hero’s tale, this film makes some notable changes that push it beyond being just another action flick. 

Perhaps most apparent of these changes is the diversity of the characters. Gone are visions of an all-white cast in Big Hero 6, replaced with a racially diverse group of heroes fit for a modern audience. Hiro and his friends come from a number of racial backgrounds, but none of them are limited to “representing” their race, instead acting as unique individuals. Not only is this group racially diverse, but also offers characters of both sexes who, for the most part, pull away from stereotypical presentations of gender. For example, independent Go Go may be a petite woman, but she’s not afraid of breaking rules or charging the enemy while Wasabi is a strong male character who prefers caution, order, and rules. I was most fearful of Honey Lemon who, at first glance, appears to be a stereotypical girly-girl–blonde, chipper, and fashionable. But the movie does a good job of showing that Honey Lemon is indeed all of those things, but she’s also a brilliant chemist, and certainly not confined to being one thing or the other. Even Fred, a “dude” who harkens back to stereotypes of young men as unhygienic and not particularly bright has some surprises up his sleeve. It’s also clear that Fred isn’t supposed to representative of male behavior.

Speaking of how men are represented in Big Hero 6, one of my favorite aspects of this film is how Hiro’s narrative diverges from typical representations of masculinity. Now, in many regards, Hiro acts as a traditional hero, but Big Hero 6 does something that I don’t see very often; it scrapes away what appears to be just another tale of a righteous hero taking down a bad guy to examine issues of revenge and grief.

The revenge plot is nothing new. I’ve seen the loss of a loved one (usually a woman) used as a plot device to spur a male character into action. Yet in many of the examples I have seen or read, the focus becomes his actions instead of his emotions. In these cases, bursts of anger, while an expression of grief, obscure the male character’s sadness over the loss, and put the consumer’s attention on his actions toward the perpetrator as that anger takes the form of violence. Of course, anger is a natural reaction, too, but when fiction puts the emphasis on the male character’s anger without fully exploring it as a facet of his sorrow, it reinforces concepts of masculinity that suggest that the acceptable way for men to express sadness is through anger. Because revenge plots often are part of action films, the stereotype gets taken one step further, with the character acting on on his anger through violence. As such, these representations take us even further from reflections of the male character’s psychological state.

Big Hero 6, however, turns our attention back to emotions. Much of this is thanks to Baymax, a puff white robot that looks like a walking marshmallow. Tadashi created Baymax act as a kind of robotic nurse so Baymax’s priority remains both Hiro’s physical and mental health even as Hiro tries to make him into a fighting machine, reminding viewers of the difficult psychological issues that Hiro is experiencing. Hiro’s attitude toward Baymax reveals his attitude toward his mental health; he would rather fight than address his grief, and he spends much of the movie trying to resist facing his emotions. But his emotions are at the heart of everything. The movie carefully depicts his depression, managing to show a grief-stricken Hiro shutting himself off without making it too depressing for kids, and how he latches onto catching the person responsible for Tadashi’s death in order to pull himself out of his depression.

While it may seem like Hiro’s emotional status takes a backseat to action as Hiro, Baymax, and company prep themselves for a fight, closer inspection reveals the movie setting up a contrast of two different ways of handling Tadashi’s death: on the one hand is revenge, and on the other is interaction with friends and family. Hiro assures Baymax–and perhaps himself, as well–that catching the guy will solve his mental health problems, but what Big Hero 6 argues can truly ease Hiro’s pain is the company of his friends and Baymax. With their help, Hiro slowly comes to terms with his brother’s death, his own grief, and, in turn, is able to keep his brother’s will alive. The path of revenge and violence, in contrast, leads only to further destruction in this narrative.

Despite its status as a kid’s movie, Big Hero 6 delves into some hefty discussions of love, grief, and violence. Big Hero 6 suggests that violence won’t solve the true aliment, and, with the healing touch of Baymax, asks its male lead to confront his loss in another way, a refreshing change to presentations of heroes handling sadness. Of course, Disney provides for those itching for a good old fashioned hero-villian face-off, complete with plenty of flying robots, superhero suits, and even a classic revenge plot in Big Hero 6, but in the end, the movie’s real magic shines where the standard hero’s narrative has been reworked to suit a more modern audience.

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Image from Amazon.com

Despite shojo manga’s reputation for romance and shonen manga being known for endless battles, both categories place a heavy weight on relationships. Shojo manga heroines pine for seemingly impossible loves while shonen manga heroes fight against unlikely odds, building a group of trustworthy teammates in the process. But whether it’s shojo or shonen, these stories often share another commonality that may not be so wonderful: the relationships, characters, and interactions between them get tangled up in formulaic, gender-stereotyped patterns. Boys have to knock heads and throw punches before they understand each other (not to mention rescue their female fellows to demonstrate their masculinity) while guy-crazy girls enter a subtle game of war as they fight to reach the apparently unobtainable guy, caught up in getting the romance of their dreams. Such posturing does happen in real life, but fiction can exaggerate relationships according to gender stereotypes. Yet among all this hyped-up relationship drama, an understated shojo manga called Natsume’s Book of Friends seems to put aside gender stereotype-heavy plots to get at a simple yet powerful human truth–our struggles to build connections with and understand others.

Takashi Natsume, the protagonist of Natsume’s Book of Friends, knows more about loneliness than a young man his age should. His parents died when he was little, resulting in him being shuffled around from one unwelcoming relative to the next. To make matters worse, ever since he can remember, Natsume has been able to see things other people can’t–strange beings akin to spirits or demons called yokai who harass him wherever he goes. Unable to see what he does, his relatives and his peers found him creepy and considered him a liar, rejecting and isolating him. Natsume has never had a place he could call “home” or people who he felt he could confide in. Now a high school student, he still has to deal with his troublesome ability, but he thinks he’s finally found the place he belongs when he’s adopted by his distant relatives, the Fujiwaras. But his troubles with yokai increase after he finds a mysterious book called “The Book of Friends” left behind by his long deceased grandmother, Reiko. Snubbed by everyone around her because of her own ability to see yokai, Reiko took out her frustrations on the supernatural creatures, beating them in duels and then binding them to her will by collecting their names in that book. Now, with help of his new bodyguard, a yokai who looks like a ceramic cat, Natsume must deal with the yokai who pester and attack him for their names and powerful The Book of Friends.

When I first came across Natsume’s Book of Friends, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. On the surface, it may sound like many other manga before it, but while this series certainly has a good dose of dangerous encounters, it uses Natsume’s ability to see yokai to jump into issues such as isolation, trust, and the joys and difficulties of having connections with others. For much of the series so far, the story works on an episodic basis, without the immediate tensions and drama of most popular series. But I quickly got used to the pace, and fell in love with Natsume’s struggles to connect, protect, and wind his way through the complexities of relationships. And perhaps because the series attempts to tackle relationships on a more fundamental level, without the extra drama of idealistic romances or out-of-this-world battles to save humanity, it feels as if the puff of accentuated gender norms has been skimmed away, leaving organic interactions between the protagonist and those he encounters.

b10.01Natsume makes the perfect protagonist to tackle these relationship struggles. He’s been rejected so many times for being honest about what he sees that he’s closed himself off, putting on a mask of normalcy to avoid problems. Now that he’s living with the Fujiwaras, their kindness has warmed him up to connecting with the people around him, but building relationships has become foreign to him. He wants to connect to others, and wants to be honest about himself, but doesn’t know how, especially when he fears his ability will either put his friends and family in danger or cause them to reject him. Yet even as he sees yokai as a threat to his life with the Fujiwaras, Natsume’s kindness leaves him unable to walk away from yokai he becomes involved with, and he begins to see the pestering and sometimes dangerous beings in a different light. Finally, one of my favorite additions to this series is the exorcists, who complicate and challenge Natsume’s thinking, namely his growing desire to help both humans and yokai. His interactions with the exorcists teach him that although he has at last found people who share his ability to see yokai, that does not mean that they fully understand each other. All three of these groups force Natsume to confront new and often difficult questions about relationships with others, from how to balance his projected image of a normal teen with his often troubled reality, how much to let people in and how much to keep them away from his secrets and problems, to confusion about who to trust and what to say. And of course, how to understand others. Although some of these troubles may seem fantastical, taken out of the supernatural context, they are all problems that everyone faces and can relate to, male or female.

That’s not to say that Yuki Modorikawa has created a gender role-free paradise in Natsume’s Book of Friends. Gender roles still seep through, albeit in a more subtle manner than some other popular shojo and shonen series; Natsume is dubious of being carried away by a female character (even as that character saves him from a dangerous situation) until he distinguishes her as a female yokai rather than a woman; at numerous points, yokai tell Natsume to “man up” or call him a “wuss”; and Natsume’s foster parents reflect an ideal traditional household with a cheery stay-at-home mother and a father who works outside the home. They’re subtle, but if you look for them, gender roles are definitely present.

Even so, these gender norms do not feel imposed on the story as the proper way to act or live as a man or woman. In fact, the protagonist himself diverges in many ways from the typical path of male characters. Natsume isn’t bolstered as a masculine superhero who saves cute damsels in his spare time nor are the girls around him flocking like maniacs to score prince charming. The series has ample chances to make Natsume into a prince charming figure, since he does assist female yokai and girls several times throughout the stories and it’s been noted in the story that Natsume is handsome, but these details never push their way to the front. Even when Natsume is repeatedly mistaken for a female relative or told to be more of a man, he does not try to reassert his manliness by exaggerating stereotypical male qualities. He is concerned with protecting those around him, a trait often seen in both shojo and shonen heroes, but Natsume’s protectiveness feels natural, the kind of protectiveness we all feel toward people we care about, no matter our gender. Notably, he doesn’t feel more protective of his female relations and acquaintances than the male ones. He wants to keep them all safe to the best of his abilities. Natsume isn’t made out to be the complete opposite of what’s considered to be masculine like Asuka from Otomen, but he’s a wonderful example of a well-rounded male character shown to have a healthy range of emotions, and a gentleness and vulnerability mixed with perseverance that sets him apart from both male and female ideals of the perfect man.

cnatsume_yuujinchou_v05_ch16_p004_transcendence_ashitakaxtaiyouIf anything, Natsume’s grandmother, Reiko, could be said to possess more stereotypical qualities of a male manga protagonist. She is long dead by the start of the series, but her legacy of taking her frustrations and loneliness out on yokai is reminiscent of many bad boy or delinquent types such as Naruto (Naruto) or Kyo (Fruits Basket), (although this behavior is seen in female characters as well). When yokai speak of the prowess of Natsume, they usually aren’t referring to the protagonist, but rather Reiko. While his grandmother dealt with her loneliness through force and violence, Natsume takes a more peaceful approach. Although his supernatural powers are strong, he’s not particularly strong physically. Instead, his true strength lies in his growing kindness and desire to protect the things he has come to care about, a double-edged sword that both makes him more susceptible to attacks and gains him loyal and powerful friends. I appreciate that these two different types of strength (physical strength and kindness) that are stereotypically applied to one gender more than the other have been switched around in Natsume’s Book of Friends. Midorikawa discusses that she considered making Natsume a girl, but I’m glad to see a nice male protagonist who neither reeks of someone’s idealized but boring prince nor has to be the super strong man to sort things out. Having a character like Natsume takes the focus away from questions of masculinity and gender norms in favor of explorations of relationships that are less gendered than we often see in fiction.

So, if you’re tired of series that lay the gender roles on thick and want one that explores the struggles and joys of relationships in a sophisticated, bittersweet manner, I recommend giving Natsume’s Book of Friends a go. A quick note before you do! For those of you who aren’t fans of episodic stories, don’t pass this series up just yet. Although the series does start solely episodic, events and characters start to connect and reappear more frequently as the story picks up. The anime is also streaming legally on Crunchyroll.

 

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